Bradford Beck
Enclosed arches underneath a building with flowing water passing through
The Cathedral arches beneath Centenary Square
EtymologyBroad Ford Beck
CityBradford, West Yorkshire
Physical characteristics
 • locationClayton Beck, Cemetery Road, Lidget Green
 • coordinates53°47′42″N 1°47′31″W / 53.79513°N 1.79189°W / 53.79513; -1.79189
 • elevation120 metres (390 ft)
 • location
Dockfield, Shipley, West Yorkshire
 • coordinates
53°50′15″N 1°46′20″W / 53.83744°N 1.77212°W / 53.83744; -1.77212
 • elevation
70 metres (230 ft)
Length6.8 miles (11 km)
Basin size22 square miles (58 km2)
 • locationShipley
 • average21 cubic feet per second (0.6 m3/s)
 • maximum1,210 cubic feet per second (34.3 m3/s) (1984)
Basin features
River systemRiver Aire
 • leftRed Beck
 • rightWestbrook, Bowling Beck, Eastbrook, Trap Sike
Bradford Beck
Clayton Beck
Cemetery Road
 A6177  Bradford Ring Road
Underneath Listerhills area
Goitside millrace branch
Underneath city centre
Bowling Beck
Valley Road
Under eastern  A6177 
Trap Sike
Gaisby Lane
Poplar Road
Red Beck
 B6149  Briggate
Bradford to Ilkley & Leeds line
Skipton to Leeds line
 A657  Saltaire to Bramley road
Leeds Liverpool Canal
Dockfield Road
Dockfield (into the River Aire)

Bradford Beck is a river that flows through Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, (then Bradford Dale) and on to the River Aire at Shipley. As it reaches Bradford city centre it runs underground after being built over in the 19th century. It is culverted as it runs from Bradford city centre to Queen's Road after which it runs mostly in an open channel to Shipley.[1] The beck used to be known as the filthiest river in England.

Bradford itself is so named after a crossing on Bradford Beck (the Broad Ford) which was located near to what is present day Church Street in the city centre, with a crossing named as Broadstones.[2] The beck is formed from a number of smaller watercourses, namely Pinch Beck, Pitty Beck, Middlebrook, Clayton Beck, Bull Greave Beck, Chellow Dene Beck, Westbrook, Dirkhill Beck, Bowling Beck, Eastbrook, Bolton Beck, Trap Sike, Northcliffe Beck and Red Beck.[3]


Anglo-Saxon Bradford was centred around a point where at least three streams converged. This was the site of two crossings – Ive Bridge and Church Bridge, where the parish church was located (later to become Bradford Cathedral).[4] In medieval times, the waters from one of the streams feeding Bradford Beck were redirected to power mills in what is now the Sunbridge and Thornton Road areas. This section west of the city centre is known as Goitside.[5]

A site north west of the parish church was the place where a ducking stool was kept on the beck. This was for the punishment of scolding and unruly women.[6] On the eventual opening of the Bradford Arm of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the stool was removed and used on the canal instead.[7] Water from Bradford Beck was used to supplement the low feedwaters going into the canal, however the canal was only supposed to take water from Bowling Beck, but as this proved insufficient, the polluted waters from Bradford Beck were used also. This turned the Bradford Canal into an open sewer.[8] The pollution in the beck during the 19th century was legendary with it being described as the filthiest river in England,[9] and Friedrich Engels described the beck in the 1840s as a "coal-black, foul-smelling stream".[10]

The canal was subject to sulphureted hydrogen (hydrogen sulphide) bubbling up to the surface (especially in summer) and this condition made it very dangerous with at least one occasion when the canal was set alight.[11] After complaints, specifically from those living and working on the Aire just east of Shipley, the Bradford Corporation was forced to act.[12] They first set up a sewage plant at Frizinghall and then when this proved insufficient (after more communities became part of Bradford) another plant was opened up at Esholt.[13]

The beck underwent a flood alleviation scheme in the early 1990s.[14] A 12-foot (3.7 m) tunnel[15] was constructed that runs west of Bradford Beck and the city centre and emerges in an open section into Bradford Beck near to Canal Road.[16]

Despite the re-direction of sewage into brick lined channels and pipes in the 19th century,[17] the beck remains polluted still. This is because of the numerous combined sewer overflow (CSO) points and other misconnected foul and drainage sewers.[18] In 2018, it was reported that the beck had turned yellow due to pollutive waste from some of the curry houses in the city. It was noted that the establishments in question were not actively throwing their waste into the beck, but the simple act of washing up combined with the misconnected wastewater pipes meant that the beck was polluted again.[19]

The beck is still unsuited to hosting wildlife, but after the Friends of Bradford's Becks set up a regeneration and cleaning programme for the beck in 2013, the waters are cleaner than they have been for a long time. The issue with the lack of wildlife now is that as the beck was culverted, it runs very fast through concrete and stone channels and as such the water flow is too fast to sustain much of the wildlife that would normally inhabit a beck of this size. The Friends of Bradford's Becks are wanting to rectify this by remodelling some of the lower reaches of the beck where it is exposed to daylight and slowing the water flow down by adding in bends.[20]

Description of route

The Environment Agency has determined that the watershed for Bradford Beck is 22 square miles (58 km2)[21] and has divided the beck into two sections; the upper part is actually Clayton Beck and the urban part (Bradford Beck proper) is from where Clayton Beck passes underneath Cemetery Road in Bradford at Lidget Green.[22] From here to the outfall point into the River Aire at Shipley it is 6.8 miles (11 km).[23]

Where the route passes through Bradford city centre in a culvert, it is to be marked by a series of carved plaques set into the ground by the Friends of Bradford's Becks.[24] The first three plaques were unveiled inside and just outside The Broadway shopping centre at the end of 2015,[25][26] and the rest are to be installed during 2016. The beck runs eastwards from the Bradford moorland and in the vicinity of the cathedral, it meets Bowling Beck and Eastbrook[27] before it turns 90° to the north.[28]

After the city centre, there are some open air sections, but the beck is mostly covered over until Queen's Road. Thereafter to Shipley, the beck is largely exposed and accompanied by signage warning of contaminated water. The Friends of Bradford's Becks have amended these signs to take away the negative effect of their warnings as the water is of a better quality now than when the signs were erected in the 1970s.[29] The beck passes underneath the railway lines at the east end of Shipley railway station and the A657 road at the same point and enters the south side of the River Aire at Dockfield in Shipley. The average flow into the River Aire is 21 cubic feet per second (0.6 m3/s) with one extreme flood event in 1984 recording an outflow of 1,210 cubic feet per second (34.3 m3/s).[30]

Ecology and environment

In 2009, the Environment Agency classified the beck as being of good chemical, but poor ecological quality. A 2012 survey of the water and its tributaries, found high levels of Phosphates, Ammonia and metals present in the water. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) along the beck and crucially further upstream, allow runoff and pollutants to enter the watercourse particularly in times of high rainfall and flood.[31]

A study by the Wild Trout Trust in 2012 noted that the beck was of poor ecological quality in terms of supporting marine life. There are too many weirs and obstacles to prevent trout and other fish to navigate upstream of the beck in its present condition.[32] A trial was held on the beck in 2015 which utilised tampons as detection points for sewage entering the beck. As the tampons do not have optical brighteners, several were left along the beck and then checked under a UV light; those that had absorbed optical brighteners did so from household pollution, which narrowed down where water company officials needed to search for causes of pollution.[33]

In April 2019, the Environment Agency re-opened an investigation into a company that had allowed pollution into the beck in August 2018. Whilst the company had already been prosecuted and remedial action taken, The Friends of Bradford's Becks asked for another investigation to be carried out, as in their opinion, the punitive measures taken against the company did not go far enough. The pollution incident was alleged to have turned the water black and killed wildlife.[34]


The beck is not navigable to boats at any point, however because of its underground nature, it does attract people wishing to explore the subterranean environment beneath the city. It has even featured in a National Geographic article on the top 11 rivers forced underground, which includes watercourses in New York, Moscow and Vienna.[35]

In popular culture

F.W. Moorman's nineteenth century dialect poem "A Dalesman's Litany" has the lines "I've seen snow drift down Bradford Beck/As black as ebony".

Eddie Lawler has sung about Bradford Beck on his 2002 CD, 'Bradford Beck'.[36] The Friends of Bradford's Becks held a poetry competition with the winning entry getting lines from their poem carved into 15 stone plaques that follow the route above ground in the city centre.[37]


  1. ^ "Bradford – Shipley Canal Road Corridor Masterplan" (PDF). Bradford Council. September 2011. p. 6. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  2. ^ Gray, Johnnie (1891). Through Airedale from Goole to Malham. Leeds: Walker & Laycock. pp. 121–122. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  3. ^ "Where I live – Bradford and West Yorkshire; The Sound of Music". BBC. May 2005. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  4. ^ "Cathedral Precinct Conservation Area Appraisal" (PDF). Bradford Council. October 2005. p. 5. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  5. ^ "Goitside Conservation Area Appraisal" (PDF). Bradford Council. October 2005. p. 6. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  6. ^ James, John (1841). "The history and topography of Bradford". Web Archive. p. 293. Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  7. ^ Holroyd, Abraham (1873). Collectanea Bradfordiana. Saltaire: Holroyd. p. 41. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  8. ^ "History of the Bradford Canal". Pennine Waterways. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  9. ^ "Report calls for Bradford's hidden asset to be uncovered". The University of Sheffield. 28 February 2013. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  10. ^ "Manningham Character and diversity in a Bradford suburb" (PDF). English Heritage. p. 36. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  11. ^ "Esholt Sewage Disposal Scheme". Internet Archive. Bradford Corporation. 1912. pp. 5–6. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  12. ^ Cudworth, William (1891). "Histories of Bolton and Bowling". Internet Archive. Brear & Sons. p. 35. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  13. ^ Hall, Graham (2011). "Where there's muck, there's brass – the Esholt sewage treatment plant". The Bradford Antiquary. 3 (15): 48–49. ISSN 0955-2553.
  14. ^ "City Centre Area Action Plan" (PDF). December 2012. p. 30. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  15. ^ Winterton, T R (1994). "Developments in pre-cast concrete tunnel linings in the United Kingdom". Tunnelling '94 : Papers presented at the seventh international symposium, 'Tunnelling'94'. Boston: Springer. p. 609. ISBN 9781461526469.
  16. ^ "Bradford Beck – culvert & tunnel". Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  17. ^ "Bradford – Shipley Canal Road Corridor Masterplan" (PDF). September 2011. p. 17. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  18. ^ "Bradford City Centre Area Action Paper (AAP)" (PDF). 2015. p. 30. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  19. ^ Yule, Samantha (17 April 2018). "Restaurant washing-up makes city's underground stream run yellow". Metro Newspaper UK. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  20. ^ Gaskell, Paul (24 October 2012). "Water Framework Directive Advisory Visit Bradford Beck 24-10-2012" (PDF). p. 30. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  21. ^ Corbelli, David (July 2012). "Evaluation of the catchment based approach" (PDF). Catchment Change. defra. p. 8. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  22. ^ "Bradford Beck". Friends of Bradford Beck. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  23. ^ Griffiths, Kathie (28 June 2013). "Friends of Bradford Beck make progress with work on historic waterway". Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  24. ^ Shand, Alistair (3 September 2015). "Wilsden woman's poetry set to hit the streets". Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  25. ^ Winrow, Jo (29 December 2015). "Plaques unveiled to mark the route of Bradford city's hidden beck". Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  26. ^ "The Broadway". Marking Bradford Beck. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  27. ^ Lawler, Eddie (April 2015). "Cleaning up the Bradford Beck". The Bradford Review (2): 16–17. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  28. ^ "Bradford Beck (Clayton Bk to R Aire)". Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  29. ^ Thomas, Rhys (6 February 2014). "Contamination signs to be removed as Bradford Beck water is certified as clean". Bradford Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  30. ^ Waters, C. N.; Northmore, K.; Prince, G.; Marker, B. M., eds. (1996). "A geological background for planning and development in the City of Bradford Metropolitan district". British Geological Survey Technical Report (WA/96/1). Keyworth: British Geological Survey: 83. OCLC 1179784337.
  31. ^ Patel, Nishika (1 July 2006). "Wet and wild clean-up will bring water dream to life". Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  32. ^ Gaskell, Paul (24 October 2012). "Water Framework Directive Advisory Visit Bradford Beck 24-10-2012" (PDF). pp. 1–35. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  33. ^ Devlin, Hannah (30 March 2015). "'Tampon tests' could be used to track sewage in rivers". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  34. ^ Mitchinson, James, ed. (16 April 2019). "Probe into pollution incident at city beck is re-opened". The Yorkshire Post. p. 6. ISSN 0963-1496.
  35. ^ Duncan, Steve. "11 Rivers Forced Underground". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  36. ^ "Eddie Lawler – writer and musician". Saltaire World Heritage Site. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  37. ^ Winrow, Jo (16 March 2015). "Winning entry in Bradford Beck poetry competition announced". Telegraph and Argus. Retrieved 9 April 2016.